On paper, the 15 people headed back to the Giddings State School juvenile correctional facility this week are serious criminals.All but one were convicted of murder when they were teenagers. Miguel Moll, the exception, was found guilty of committing aggravated robbery and sentenced to 19 years behind bars. He served the full 19, mostly in an adult prison.Together, the 15 youth offenders spent well over 200 years behind bars, with many of them transferred from the juvenile lockups to state penitentiaries when they turned 21.Their trip back to Giddings on Saturday is not because they’re in trouble again. Quite the opposite.They have stayed out of trouble, are turning their lives around and want to help other young people, some before they make a serious mistake and others who are already serving time because of crime.This event was organized by Charleston White, a man I first wrote about when he was 14 after he led a group of teenagers to an Arlington mall to shoplift athletic jackets.As the youths ran out of the store, chased by a clerk, another man confronted them in the parking lot and was shot by a boy who was waiting in the getaway car.White, now 37, was sent to the Texas Youth Council lockup, where he stayed until he was released a few months before his 21st birthday.Two years ago, I met with White, Moll and three others who had been convicted as teenagers, and they talked about using their experience as a way to reach others. Since then, White and Moll have been speaking regularly to church and community groups, to programs serving juveniles and to young people behind bars.Both White and Moll are students at Texas Wesleyan University, where White is two semesters away from receiving a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.White wanted to do even more to show that some people can come out of the juvenile and criminal justice systems and change their lives. And the message to the young people locked up is that they, too, can live “pro-social and productive lives” if they use all the programs offered to them in the state schools. “Most of us were considered the worst juveniles in the state,” White will tell the youngsters at Giddings. “Most had a recommendation from the state to be sent to adult prisons. … If we can change, you can change.”But he also has a message to the staff: “Even though these kids are what they are today, they will be different five to 10 years from now. You are the last line of defense before they go back to society.”White has formed a nonprofit youth outreach organization, Helping Young People Excel, or HYPE). He has partnered with the gang-intervention Comin’ Up program and has worked directly with members of Fort Worth’s largest Hispanic gang.He has been invited to speak this summer in Washington, D.C., in a program sponsored by Texas Appleseed, an organization involved in justice work for society’s most vulnerable.When I see what White, Moll and the others have accomplished since being released, I have faith that the juvenile justice system can do what it was intended to do: to change lives. Of course it can’t do that unless the individual wants to change.
Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775 Twitter: @BobRaySanders